Located on the precipice of Europe and Asia, the epic city of Istanbul is a wondrous location to spend time in. From the cultural hot-spot of the Grand Bazaar, the beautiful mosques and the brilliant night life – the city has something to offer for everyone. I had the good fortune of spending some time in the city in the summer of 2019 and visited the most vibrant & best places in Istanbul.
Whether you’re a nature lover or an architectural nerd or you love to discover new cultures, there’s something for everyone in Istanbul. In this post, I will share best places to visit in Istanbul which are iconic and should be on everyone’s itinerary, especially if you are visiting for the first time.
So without further ado, let’s check out the best places to visit in Istanbul:
1. Visit the Sultanahmet Square
The square is considered to be the most touristy spot in Istanbul and is always crawling with tourists from all around the world. There are many things to do here but the square itself is very beautiful with great things to eat and see. It is traffic free and just a joy to walk around and explore. You can get yourself a bite to eat, chill at a cafe or just find yourself clicking pictures in the beautiful gardens.
2. Enjoy the beauty known as the Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia, built in the 6th century, was a church for a short period in the 13th century before being converted into a mosque in 1453. But I could still see remnants of the church in abundance. Picture and sculptures of Christ in many places along with the traditional elements of a mosque. It shows that even when the conversion to mosque happened, the church elements were not removed. The place is an example of the two religions existing in harmony which is very different to the world where we live in.
I will let the pictures speak for themselves about the immense beauty of this monument. No wonder it is a UNESCO world heritage site and has been very well maintained over so many years.
3. Blue Mosque
The beautiful Sultan Ahmed mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, is a very popular tourist destination because of the stunning blue interior of the mosque. Unlike Hagia Sophia, this is a functional mosque and hence you need to be careful about the timings that you visit as the place might be closed to tourists during prayers.
One of the striking things that I found here was not inside but outside the mosque. There were posters that had been put for tourists to read which listed down all kinds of achievements and contributions of Islam to the world. It was amazing to me to read these and get to know about the positive impact that Islam has had on the world we live in.
4. Obelisk of Theodosius
Erected in the middle of Hippodrome, the obelisk of theodosius is an well-preserved pink granite structure – originally carved in 1500 BC and then re-erected in the hippodrome in 390 AD.
5. Explore the Museums
Sultanahmet is home to a number of museums depisting turkish and islamic culture:
(i) The Topkaki palace museum
(ii) Museum of turkish and islamic architecture
(iii) Istanbul archaeological museums
(iv) The museum of ancient orient
(v) Istanbul museum of the history of science and tech in Islam
You can either choose to pay at individual entrance gates or take a Museum pass which will allow you to move freely between them.
6. Hagia Irene
The Hagia Irene is a Byzantine Church located in the courtyards of the Topkapi Palace. It is one of the rare churches that has not been converted into a mosque in Istanbul. The church was built by Constantine but has been rebuilt extensively since then (in 6th and 8th century). Walking around the place will take you back through the history of this place and it is definitely worth a visit. You can read more about Hagia Irene on Wikipedia.
7. Arasta Bazaar
The Arasta Bazaar is one of Istanbul’s most visited tourist markets – a close 2nd behind the Grand Bazaar. It is located near to the blue mosque and interestingly the rent earned from these shops is used for maintenance of the mosque.
You can shop for great turkish souvenirs, traditional clothing, spices, teas and even a lot of cheap knock-offs similar to the Grand Bazaar. If you are a bargain hunter you will have a field day here. On a personal note, I really liked the look of the street where the Bazaar is located – very clean and well-maintained. I also liked the hospitality of the turkish people – every shop owner was very friendly and if you bought something from them they would always add-on a special small gift for you (very nice touch!).
8. Gulhane Park
The beautiful landscaped gardens of Bulhane Park are a must-visit for any tourist. If you visit Istanbul in the spring season you will the place filled with beautiful tulips. During the summer, this is a place you can enjoy the cool breeze from the sea under the shade of the trees. On my visit here, I spent a good 2 hours just sitting my friends under a tree tired from our travels and spending all day roaming the museums nearby.
9. Basilicas Cistern
The Basilicas Cistern is one of hundred of cisterns that lie below the streets of Istanbul but is the largest one. The entrance to this engineering marvel is from across street to Hagia Sophia. Built in the 6th century was built as an underground water container to meet the water needs of the Great Palace. After the restoration was completed the cistern has been open to the public since 1987.Once inside I highly recommend going to the far-left corner to see the iconic Medusa heads.
10. Enjoy the nightlife at Basiktas
Besiktas is an area full of night clubs and cafes and is filled with locals and tourists alike. It is one of the best places to visit in Istanbul for partying hard and enjoying the nightlife. When I visited, it was amazing to see everyone out and about and having the time of their lives. The area is home to many night clubs, bars, pubs and discos. The Turkish locals are very friendly and you can speak to them to hear some great stories over a few drinks.
11. Go Bargain hunting at the Grand Bazaar
In Istanbul, look no further than Grand bazaar to enjoy your shopping. There is always a bargain to be had and it is one of the best places to visit in Istanbul for souvenir shopping. Here’s a list of things that I saw and bought and it definitely does not begin to cover what all you can find at the Grand Bazaar.
- Different types of Turkish tea – you will find shops selling different types of tea which have special functions. I bought the relax tea to calm my nerves at the end of the day. You also have herbal teas, immunity booster teas, love tea and energy boosting teas as well. Having used the relax tea quite often over the past year I can safely say that it really works
- Turkish delight and sweets – many types of turkish sweets are available including the turkish delight and baklava
- Jewellery – I bought a lot of this for my family members in the form of bracelets and anklets. The prices are negotiable and you will see some unique designs
- Turkish plates
- Dates and other assorted eating items
12. Enjoy the evening views of the Bosphorous
Istanbul is a great place just to walk around and enjoy the pulse of the city. As part of the walking around – be sure to walk around the coast and check out the beautiful views of the Bosphorous especially from the Galata Bridge.
13. Go for a traditional Turkish Bath
With so much to see and so much walking around, you are bound to get tired and there’s no better way to relax than to go for a traditional turkish bath – Hamam. There are many Hamam joints in Istanbul and I would recommend calling ahead and reserving your spot. The bath starts with some time in the sauna, followed by a shower, massage, bubble bath, jacuzzi and then back in the shower. The overall experience really helped us relax after a very tiring few days.
14. Taksim Square
The Taksim Square is the most well-known city center of Istanbul. It was the scene of the civil unrest that happened in Turkey back in 2013 and many would be able to recall the place from the news footage scene in those days. If you walk around the place, there are some spots where the remnants of those days have been preserved.
There are many hotels and restaurants near the place and it is always buzzing with tourists. The famous monument here is the Independence Monument which stands at the beginning of the Istiklal pedestrian street where you only travel by Tram or by foot.
15. Go Shopping at Istaklal Caddesi
Istaklal Caddesi is one of the most famous & crowded streets in Istanbul. Nearly 3 million people visit this street every single day. The pictures tell the story. The whole vibe of the place is just awesome and I really loved just walking along this place. You can see many street performers here and all the big brands have a presence here.
I visited two small souvenir shops here and got some cool fridge magnets and wall plates to take back home. The owners were so friendly and they gifted me free stickers and magnets.
16. Enjoy traditional Turkish desserts at Hafiz Mustafa
You HAVE to try the traditional Turkish desserts. The list is endless but Baklava, Kadayif and Kunefe are the top most on my list. Hafiz Mustafa is one of the best places to visit in Istanbul to try these sweets. Definitely have them fresh and also take some home with you.
Here’s my list of best places to visit in Istanbul and I am sure you would love these places too. If you happen to visit some of these places, do let me know about your experience in the comments below.
Planning to visit Turkey for the first time? Go ahead and check out my other posts-
- 10 Day Turkey travel itinerary for first time visitors
- Top things to to in Cappadocia for first time visitors